Many of my conservative friends are troubled, even angered, by any mention of political issues “from the pulpit.”

Like many of us older folks, they were told as children that neither religion nor politics should be discussed in polite company, family gatherings or church.

We were also told that religion and politics mixed about as well as oil and water. Just tell us, we asked our priests and ministers, how to be better in our personal lives. Leave social and political issues out of any discussion of sin or redemption.

This changed for me when I entered a Catholic high school in the Midwest and had many priests as teachers who emphasized social justice.

We were told that Jesus wanted us to avoid personal sins of commission (usually sexual) as well as sins of omission — failing to respond to our “neighbors” — a term which included millions who did not look, act, speak, or behave culturally as we did.  We were to actually “love our neighbor as ourselves.” 

Lying, stealing, cheating and killing, those Biblical standards, were still important, and we learned that they had broad social, as well as personal, implications. 

The social/political issues that should concern us as followers of Jesus in those days (‘50s and ‘60s) were racism (usually then called racial discrimination), poverty and injustices caused by unfair treatment of individuals in our country and overseas. Injustice topped our list of social sins.  

It still does.

Given the admonition against mixing religion and politics, I was intrigued by a recent New York Times column by Republican David Brooks entitled “A Christian Vision of Social Justice” (March 18, 2021).  

Brooks began by declaring that he wanted “to promote social change in a way that doesn’t involve destroying people’s careers over a bad tweet, that doesn’t reduce people to simplistic labels, that is more about a positive agenda to redistribute power to the marginalized than it is about simply blotting out the worthy.” He wanted, he said, to oppose oppression but “without the dehumanizing cruelty we’ve seen of late.”

These words reveal Brooks as a person who respects religion and morality, and this passage is a great example of why he is one of my favorite Republicans.

Brooks found a way to pursue his vision of social change after interviewing Esau McCaulley, a New Testament professor at Wheaton College. McCaulley described a Christian vision of social justice that Brooks thought was “important for everyone to hear, Christian and non-Christian, believer and nonbeliever.” Brooks himself is Jewish.

 McCaulley’s vision of social justice has several major components. It involved “respect for the human dignity of each person,” the importance of memory, seen in many Biblical tales of “marginalization and transformation” found in the Old Testament, along with a story of “how a fractious people came together to form a nation.” 

Perhaps most important was the concept of sin, and the “action plan” in Brook’s words that helps one recover from sin by “acknowledging the sin, confessing and asking for forgiveness, turning away from the sin, and restoring the wrong done.”

Think about how such a moral action plan could help us address issues like racism and poverty. Even the most conservative Christians see that racism as sinful. They might even admit that discrimination against people of color in America is a social, political and economic problem hurting our nation.

If we then see racism as a sin, Brooks believes, instead of as another leftist distraction, we could confess it, ask forgiveness, try to find personal and political ways to reduce or end it, and even offer some form of compensation to “restore the wrong done.”

Similarly, we could see the huge income gap between rich and poor in America as something sinful, caused by greed, selfishness, and injustices embedded in our economic and legal systems and a clear refusal to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”

Racism and poverty are both religious and political issues. Brooks reminds us that political leaders formerly acknowledged the important role of religion in public life, citing William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King as examples. Religious and political leaders can work together for social justice, the Supreme Court willing, while still keeping church and state separate!

And that would be a clear “win-win” scenario.

Ken Wolf is a Democrat and a retired Murray State University history professor. He speaks here as an individual and not as a representative of either of these organizations. He can be reached at wolken43@gmail.com.